Settlements of the North Star, Part Two: Stories of the Underground Railroad in Canada
Karen Schaefer- In the same year that Reverend William King established the Elgin Settlement at Buxton as a haven for runaway slaves, Edwin Larwill promulgated the only organized and sustained campaign against Blacks in Canadian history. A tinsmith and politician from nearby Chatham, Ontario, Larwill penned a petition protesting the Buxton community and collected 376 signatures, headed by his own.
Edwin Larwill (re-enactor)- The negro is a distinct species of the human family and in the opinion of your moralists is very inferior to that of the European. Amalgamation is as disgusting to the eye as it is immoral to its tendencies.
KS- By amalgamation, Larwill meant producing children of mixed race, something abhorred by white supremacists, but widely practiced in the antebellum southern United States. These and other concerns sparked a number of public debates over black settlers moving into the otherwise white communities of rural Ontario.
EL (re-enactor)- Imagine black councilors, school trustees, taskmasters, etc. The opinions of our institutions would be utterly destroyed.
Today I stand before you and together we have all seen that the reasons given against the formation of this settlement have been proven unfounded and false!
KS- But by the seventh anniversary of the settlement, most white farmers had formed a high opinion of the former fugitives. Land values had increased two- and threefold and the settlers' thirst for education, religious faith and high moral principles had impressed all but the most hard-hearted of their new neighbors. In fact, in 1863, Reverend King noted that only half of the Buxton schoolchildren were Black, while the other half were of mixed parentage. The dreaded amalgamation had already taken place.
Muriel Newby- You see, this was a very mixed school. We didn't know anything about all of this racial problem. We didn't know anything about it. All of us went to school together.
KS- Today Buxton's racial integration is just one of the many things that make this community unique. For the last 75 years, family and friends have been making the annual pilgrimage to Buxton to celebrate the spirit of homecoming.
Elsie Quinn Arnold- I was born in Oberlin, Ohio. I now live in Sandusky, I've been living there for 59 years and every year we come back to North Buxton to the Homecoming, because that's where my mother was from.
Thelma Quinn Smith- She used to bring us up here when I was a small child. We'd come over on the boat and every year, we'd come up here, so this is my second family here.
KS- Elsie Quinn Arnold and her sisters, Thelma, Beulah and Ruby have always known their family history. After the years of slavery, when husbands, wives and children could be sold away, family is one of the joys of the Buxton community.
EQA- This is our great, great, great grandfather right there. The Watts, the Princes, the Travis, the Brooks, Shadds, Shreves -- all those are related to us. These are my two great grandchildren -- this is their first time up here.
KS- In North Buxton, even strangers are welcome. But for Americans like Benny Clark from Detroit that welcome has a special meaning.
Benny Clark- When we came up here that summer, they welcomed us like native sons returned. Because so many times you find that the story ends up at a dead end or it's a terrible story in a ghetto and you wonder, have we actually progressed? Or have we taken a step backward? And in many ways we have taken a step backwards, because a lot of us have lost our pride. But where the pride has persisted, we did great.
KS- At the heart of Buxton's success lies a fundamental between the United States and Canada. In Canada, the right of self-determination for Black citizens has always been upheld, a law neither custom nor government has ever broken. But in the U.S., slavery changed everything. Tony Burroughs, who teaches African-American Genealogy at the University of Chicago, believes that for many African-Americans freedom is no more a reality today than it was 150 years ago.
Tony Burroughs- The early settlement here, it was not only about going for freedom, it was not only building a community, it was about land. And that gives you your self-sufficiency. That never happened in the States. I mean, we got our forty acres and a mule, but then it was taken away. We passed from chattel slavery to wage slavery. And never earned enough even to make a living, let alone become independent. So I think it's a major, major difference.
Geneva Brown Prince- I'm a relative of just a great big bunch of good people, good, strong people. We'll be here forever.
KS- For the far-flung descendants of the original Elgin Settlement, North Buxton, Ontario will always be home. But for others Buxton is a hope, a prayer, a promise of how the world should be. For Infohio, I'm Karen Schaefer, reporting from Canada.